** (out of four)
Around the holidays, you could go to church or you could go to “Black Nativity,” a 90-minute sermon posing as a movie.
There’s nothing wrong with a film advocating gratitude and forgiveness, of course. But written and directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) from a play by Langston Hughes, the earnest, repetitive “Black Nativity” ignores original drama for the sake of superficial inspiration. Like a made-for-TV holiday special, it’s a hug from a stranger instead of a memorable night with the family.
In Baltimore, a woman (Jennifer Hudson, because this is a musical) who has to work on Christmas and apparently has no friends sends her teenage son, Langston (Jacob Lattimore), to spend the holidays with grandparents (Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett) he has never met. How and why she arranges this, rather than exploring alternatives to indirectly ending a decadeslong rift, I do not know. Soon Langston, named after Hughes, arrives in Harlem and has his bag stolen by some punk kid. Welcome to New York, buddy.
He also tries to return a man’s lost wallet and gets arrested anyway, one of the few times Lemmons depicts targeted points about modern race relations. Otherwise “Black Nativity” is a feel-good movie that rarely bothers to be much of one, including songs about God and dismissing doubts about faith by essentially saying, “Look around and you’ll change your mind.” This type of emotion is not improved by lines like Reverend Cobbs (Whitaker) answering his grandson’s question of “What kind of parents are you?” with, “We’re the brokenhearted kind.”
I know that musicals aren’t reality, but it’s still distracting when Hudson, whose vocal and physical performances don’t sync up, unleashes that amazing voice as a character who is sad and lonely and broke. Nasir “Nas” Jones adds little as a man on a bus who joins Langston in feeling like a motherless child, and the film’s biggest attempt at redemption mostly comes off as a massive coincidence.
“This is my Christmas story,” says Langston in voiceover toward the beginning. His tale—a young man searching for security and guidance without much family to provide it—deserves to be told. Anyone can value the importance of thinking before making a potentially life-changing mistake, and in a few minutes “Black Nativity” (which also features Tyrese Gibson and Mary J. Blige) better honors black history than all of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” That’s not a tall bar to rise above.
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